If you haven’t taken a university level course in 20 years or more, you may be unaware of a massive transformation that has occurred in that time frame. A friend of mine recently used the term, “Mail order degree”, which got me thinking about misconceptions around the validity of on-line course delivery and the emergence of fast-and-loose universities that confer advanced degrees by recognizing “life experience”. God knows there are a ton of them around.

Let’s get one thing clear: EVERY university in the world today uses on-line courses as part of their course delivery “mix”. I saw an interview with the president of an Ivy League university a couple of years ago, and he warned that any brick-and-mortar school that failed to embrace on-line course delivery would be out of business in a matter of a few years. My son recently completed his BA in Political Science at Concordia University in Montreal, a massive brick-and mortar school. Fifty percent (50%) of his courses were delivered on line over the course of his years there!! Every university selects the ratio of on-line to ass-in-the-seat classes….and this ratio is growing everywhere because:

  1. There is massive demand from students
  2. Real estate costs have become so astronomical that building more buildings simply isn’t feasible, especially for downtown campuses like McGill, Concordia, UCLA, etc.
  3. It turns out that courses that don’t require hands-on lab work are taught (and learned) more effectively from home
  4. It is environmentally responsible to limit urban sprawl, gas consumption, building heating/cooling and maintenance, by limiting classes that require a physical presence only to courses that involve lab work.

So, how does one know if the money they are going to invest in their education is well, and more importantly, recognizably spent?

In Canada, it’s pretty easy. All universities are accredited by their respective provincial ministries of education, and all provinces recognize each other’s accreditation. This means that Chemistry 101 from McGill can be seamlessly transferred to UBC or the University of Manitoba, etc., without question.

In the USA, it’s equally simple, but you must know how it works:

Ten provinces are not so hard to manage, but imagine 50 state education departments trying to agree on standards? Fortunately, the US has set up a very simple and effective system in the form of 6 regional accreditation bodies that make up the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). This council sets the standards and accredits all “real” universities in the USA. Once again, it means that Chemistry 101 taken at the University of Notre Dame can be seamlessly and unquestionably transferred to the University of Chicago, or Harvard, Yale, UCLA, etc. Of course, different universities may be “ranked” by various bodies as higher or lower in “prestige” based on the reputations of their professors, the amount of research being done, quality of their sports teams, etc. But from an educational perspective, the CHEA accreditation means that all accredited universities have met the same standards and expectations.

It is interesting to peruse the list of accredited Universities on the CHEA’s list. Take for example, the North Central Association region. You will note that some of the most prestigious universities in America, e.g., University of Notre Dame, University of Chicago, Northwestern University, Indiana University at Bloomington (where the classic movie Breaking Away was filmed), etc., are all accredited by the CHEA, as are some of the largest universities that have a higher on-line to brick-and mortar ratio, e.g., Capella University, Walden University, Fielding University, etc. It is notable that the CHEA makes no distinction between mode of course delivery and accreditation…in fact, it isn’t even mentioned because everyone is now doing it.

So, if you’re looking to pick a school, it’s pretty simple:

  1. Find a school that has the program you want to pursue and that the school is fully accredited by the CHEA.
  2. Find out if your specialized program is accredited by its respective body, e.g., a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology should be additionally accredited by the American Psychological Association.
  3. Check out the cost. In the end, if the school is CHEA accredited, more expensive doesn’t mean better.
  4. Beware of pseudo-accreditation agencies. Most spurious universities will claim that they are “accredited”, but is is always from some private agency which they themselves have set up. Only CHEA accreditation assures you of a recognized and transferable education.